In an essay on the time he spent working in a second-hand bookshop in London, George Orwell concluded that the profession of bookselling was not for him. Despite some happy days, it was here that “I lost my love of books”. The need to always praise titles to customers was distasteful, and still worse was having to constantly dust and haul volumes.
Fortunately, there are those who would disagree, though they may be a shrinking breed. As two recent books show, if there are sorrows, there are also many satisfactions. In Shelf Life, Nadia Wassef writes of her time as co-owner of Cairo’s Diwan Bookstore; and in A Bookshop in Algiers, Kaouther Adimi offers a novelised account of Edmond Charlot and his iconic bookshop, Les Vraies Richesses.
When Wassef and her sister Hind were asked during a dinner with friends what they would do if they could do anything they liked, both came up with the same answer: they would open a bookshop in Cairo. This was in 2001, a time of artistic stasis in Egypt, according to Wassef. “Writers became government employees; literature died many successive slow and bureaucratic deaths.” In her indomitable way, she goes on: “Starting a bookstore at this moment of cultural atrophy seemed impossible—and utterly necessary.”
Shelf Life is a forthright account of the fortunes of Diwan, the bookshop that she, her sister, and three others founded in Cairo’s upmarket Zamalek district. The name was suggested by her mother, who enumerated its translations: “a collection of poetry in Persian and Arabic, a meeting place, a guesthouse, a sofa, and a title for high-ranking officials.”
Remarkably, in the years that followed, they opened in 16 more locations all over the city (and closed in six). They achieved this by a combination of passion, candour, and – in Wassef’s case – not a little profanity. At one time, she was known behind her back as “the Terminator”.
Diwan became an inextricable part of their lives, through marriages, divorces, births, and deaths. They had to overcome the difficulties of running a business in a patriarchal society; navigate harassment and discrimination; cajole bureaucratic despots; and become fluent in Egypt’s censorship laws.
Notably, the book is structured around shop sections, moving from the Café to Egypt Essentials to Cookery to Self-help to Classics and more. Wassef integrates activities to create a portrait not just of developments in Diwan, but also in her life and society at large.
She writes from a position of privilege, one that she is aware of. When setting up a university outlet, she feels that the flagship shop catered to the literary elite, neglecting a large subset of the Egyptian population. Diwan should be affordable and accessible to younger generations across social strata: “We needed to start a relationship where there hadn’t been one.” At another time, writing of thefts by staff and clientele, she wonders “how much the expensive books and affluent customers alienated and demoralised my less privileged co-workers”.
Shelf Life also shows how Cairo has changed over the years, mirroring changes in other cities worldwide. With suburban sprawl, for example, comes an erosion of public spaces such as parks and plazas, and the rise of malls that threaten “the quiet dignity of small family-run shops and stalls”.
In the selection of English and Arabic titles, and the occasional controversy this causes among customers and censors, Wassef illuminates Egyptian cultural baggage and the need to shed outdated assumptions. “As I continued to read books and people over the years, Diwan, and Egypt, changed around me. As always, my shelves offered me an unexpected education on these changes.”
Soon after the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, Wassef and her sister gave up their stakes in Diwan. She now lives in London and, recalling a teenage identification with the title of Camus’s The Outsider, concludes that “today, the knowledge that I don’t belong anywhere liberates me”.
Camus himself is an occasional but significant presence in Kaouther Adimi’s A Bookshop in Algiers (also published as Our Riches), translated from the French by Chris Andrews. The book is a fictional account of Edmond Charlot’s love for literature and enthusiastic promotion of writers.
In 1936, when he was 21, Charlot opened a bookshop-cum-library called Les Vraies Richesses in Algiers, a small space with a steep, creaky staircase but full of books and heart. It was to last through the ravages of history in one form or another till 2017, by which time it was an annex of the country’s national library.
Adimi’s novel cross-cuts between past and present. It contrasts Charlot’s life with the activities of an engineering intern who has to get rid of the books that remain, repaint the bookshop, and get the premises ready for the next owner who plans to set up a confectionery shop.
The novel is slim but wide-ranging, perhaps too much so, encompassing social and political shifts, colonial attitudes, and current national ambivalences. Adimi does this through tonal and stylistic variations that range from the impressionistic to the realistic.
For Charlot, his bookshop was to be “a sort of meeting place for friends, but with a Mediterranean outlook”. Through diary entries, we learn of his successes, struggles, publishing ventures, and unflagging commitment to the written word. In one passage, he notes: “The writer has to sit down and write; the publisher has to give the book a life in the world. This isn’t something I can keep in a compartment. Literature is too important for me to spend time on anything else.”
Over the years, Charlot falls deep into debt; continues to publish and sell books during the Nazi occupation; joins the war effort; sets up another ill-fated literary venture in Paris; and, till the last, continues to encourage and advocate writers. Camus apart, among the others he published were Rilke and Lorca. It’s a remarkable life, rendered more poignant by financial and other difficulties.
As for the intern, “he has never liked reading, and all this printed, bound and glued paper has no charm at all for him”. Glimmers of understanding dawn when he is told: “Charlot left something beautiful here, something bigger than everything that was going on outside.”
At the end of his engaging The Bookseller’s Tale, Martin Latham, manager of Waterstones in Canterbury, acknowledges the role of customers and book-lovers who “prove every day that there is more to life than war and laundry”. In their own ways, these books by Wassef and Adimi also do just that.Internet Explorer Channel Network